Released under the Marvel Knights Animation banner, the Astonishing X-Men Collection Blu-ray presents the four motion comics adapted from the Eisner Award-winning work by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassady. Comprised of the first 24 issues of Astonishing X-Men plus Giant-Size #1, Neal Adams' Continuity Studios converted the books into approximately 11-minute chapters, aside from the Giant-Size, and over the three-year gap between the first installment, Gifted in 2009, and the second, Dangerous earlier this year, the motion animation has noticeably improved, while the writing and art are just as good as the comics.
Although numbered as a new series, Gifted (Issues #1-6) follows the mythology of Grant Morrison's work in New X-Men. With Professor Xavier away, Scott Summers (Cyclops) and Emma Frost are running his School for Gifted Youngsters. Assisting them are Hank McCoy (Beast, who now looks like a lion as opposed to his earlier ape-like appearance) Logan, (Wolverine), Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat). A mutant cure alleged to be created by Dr. Rao, offers fear and promise as some mutants consider the possibilities. In the meantime, Ord, an alien from the planet Breakworld, has come Earth because of the prophecy that a mutant will destroy his planet in the future. He looks to kill that mutant first.
Dangerous (Issues #7-12) finds The Danger Room rebelling against Xavier and his students as the AI running it takes physical form, going by the name Danger. The Danger character was intriguing; however, I didn't buy Whedon's decision to have Xavier knowingly responsible for repressing the character within the Danger Room system. That's not the Xavier I grew up with at all and the response by the other characters was very brief for someone they had all invested in emotionally.
Torn (Issues #13-18) sees Emma bring members of the villainous Hellfire Club to the mansion. The X-Men are psychically disabled, and the choices made by Whedon are well done and tie into the characters, except for Wolverine who prances around and talks like Little Lord Fauntleroy. While certainly unexpected, it comes off way too silly, and diminishes the stakes.
Unstoppable (Issues #19-24 & Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1) concludes the Breakworld storyline as Agent Brand of S.H.I.E.L.D and the X-Men attempt to avert a war. The story certainly has a Giant-Size feel to it, reaching epic proportions and guest-starring a number of other Marvel characters, from Doctor Strange to Spider-Man.
The four stories are enjoyable, but on occasion it gets too Whedonesque for its own good. While demonstrating a good sense of the characters and creating believable interactions between them, from fighting to relationship dynamics, having everyone deliver smart quips made them sound too much alike. Could have also done without the Star Wars references. Otherwise, the plots are engaging and the characters entertaining.
I appreciated Cassady's artwork. He has a good eye for characters and backgrounds, though I wasn't sure whose chest needed to be covered up more: Emma or Beast. Continuity brings movement to his static panels, though there were some issues. Characters walking didn't always look natural, and moving mouths brought to mind Clutch Cargo a few times. But for the most part, the comic looked liked it had come to life. Beast fighting Wolverine was particularly impressive, especially with all the tiny bits of wood fragments flying about.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1. Colors are vibrant and blacks are inky. Depth is minimal and playing with focus of different objects doesn’t add much. The source, which was clean, dictates both the thickness of lines and the amount of detail seen in textures. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 delivers clear dialogue and solid ambiance from the effects, the latter of which could get too loud at times from explosions and massive engines.
There are Special Features on both discs. Disc One offers "A Conversation with [Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief] Joe Quesada and [Co-Director] Neal Adams” (17 min) as they individually discuss turning the comic into a motion comic, a “Rise Up” Music Video (3 min) by David Ari Leon & Guy Erez that uses video of the motion comic, and the Gifted trailer (2 min). Disc Two is slighter with a "Behind the Scenes: Marvel Knights Animation" (5 min) so brief it doesn't offer the depth required to actually bring the viewer behind the scenes and trailers for other Marvel Knights Animation titles: Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., Black Panther, Iron Man: Extremis, and Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers.
Fans of Astonishing X-Men should be satisfied with this Blu-ray. Fans of the characters should as well, as long as they are open to Whedon's interpretations, like Summers' powers disappearing. Those new to the characters should be able to jump right in as Whedon quickly reveals the characters' power and personalities without having the story come to a halt. However, there are times when past events are brought up and not clearly explained, but not enough to detract from the overall experience.